Minutes after receiving President Tilghman’s email announcing her plans to retire as president, students took to Facebook and Twitter: “Say it ain’t so, Shirls!” wrote one. “But Shirley ... NO!” And a contrary view: “This will be known in our history as the end of the Dark Ages, the conclusion of the War on Fun, and the beginning of the Frataissance.”
With her administration’s hard line on grade deflation, the freshman ban on rushing Greek organizations, and
policies affecting the eating clubs, Tilghman made her share of controversial decisions. Through it all, her dedication to students, along with a college-friendly sense of humor — will anyone forget how she one-upped Steve Carell during Class Day in June with a “that’s what she said” joke? — have made her an indelible part of the Princeton experience.
“During the fall of my freshman year, she showed up to the Quidditch championships to pronounce Rocky College the winners of the golden broomstick,” recalled Taylor Mallory ’13. “In that moment, she was Lady Dumbledore, and I loved her.”
One gauge of student sentiment — comments posted anonymously on The Daily Princetonian’s website —showed a mixed reaction to the president’s tenure. Nearly half of those commenting decried her presidency for “failed policies such as grade deflation and her crusade against Greek life.” “She’s gone! Time to celebrate!” said one.
But many others spoke fiercely in her defense. “Under Tilghman, the University developed into a top undergraduate university in the world,” said one, while another praised her as “a wonderful president who moved the University forward in many important ways.”
Over the years, Tilghman has looked to students for suggestions about how to improve the Princeton experience, in big ways and small. “I told her once how it drove me crazy that people used the main back doors in Frist Gallery during the winter, which let all the cold air in,” said senior Molly Brean ’13. “She said she was on it, and sure enough, a week later, signs were put up in front of those doors asking people to be considerate.”
Being president has not kept Tilghman, a molecular biology professor, out of the classroom. “To me, she’s not President Tilghman, she’s Professor Tilghman,” said Eric Silberman ’13, a molecular biology major who has Tilghman as his thesis adviser. “She read and marked up three or four drafts of my JP — the last of which I sent her two days before my JP was due, and she returned it the next morning.” As president, she’s taught a freshman seminar, molecular biology courses, and, most recently, an upper-level seminar at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Students credited Tilghman — the University’s first female president — with making Princeton a more welcoming place for students regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. Writing in the Prince, Jenna McCarthy ’13 called Tilghman “the University’s most vocally feminist president,” and one who focused on “tearing down glass ceilings that impeded women both inside and outside Nassau Hall.”
Students also cited Tilghman’s support at orchestra concerts, dance shows, and plays — and her cameo video in Clayton Raithel ’12 and Sebastian Franco ’12’s senior-thesis show, an irreverent adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Said Raithel: “She came alive on camera, and was probably the most consistent laugh we had in the entire run of the show.”